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From the Country Standard Time Archives

Robert Earl Keen's Texas Uprising heads west: undeniable power of superb music played extremely well

Watsonville, Cal. June 23, 2002

By Dan MacIntosh

WATSONVILLE, CA - On paper last year's California edition of Robert Earl Keen's Texas-centered variety show appeared to be far more promising. That summer's festival featured Iris Dement, Joe Ely and Jack Ingram - to name but few its high profile participants.

But music is a living, breathing entity and true artistry is so much more than mere written laurels. And just like with lowly Charlie Tuna, music fans don't want music with good taste; they want music that tastes good, and such tastiness was what made this year's central California concert such a pleasant surprise.

Rodney Crowell would have held his own alongside last year's stellar lineup of legends and legends-in-the making, but this year he was the event's most anticipated act. He immediately scored points by relying almost entirely on material from his recent "The Houston Kid" recording - especially in front of a festival crowd where many in attendance may not have even been familiar with his work.

Some of the songs he chose from "Kid" were also some of its most difficult selections. These included "I Wish It Would Rain," which is about a male prostitute with AIDS, and the almost whispered "I Know All I Need Is Love," which Crowell bravely chose to close his show.

He did play "I Ain't Living Long Like This" (while being joined by John Cowan on vocals), as well as a cover of Dylan's "Like A Rolling Stone." This Dylan cover was a revelation, since Crowell took it nice and slow, concentrating on each and every meaningful phrase, which is something its author rarely even takes the time to do anymore.

Robert Earl Keen closed the show, as he always does, by opening with a few quiet songs - including a lovely take on "I Wonder Where My Baby Is Tonight" - before revving it up into the Texas party machine he's famous for.

Keen also ventured to the second stage to introduce a few acts/friends. One of these was his current touring partner, Rodney Hayden, who lived up to his album title ("The Real Thing") by playing a short set of beautifully pure honky tonk. Keen also introduced Tom Russell, who was in rare form - in spite of sound problems that completely cut him out a couple of times - on his high caliber material. Particularly notable this afternoon was his singing of "Where the Dream Begins," which is both painfully autobiographical and touching.

While the most of these acts saturated their music with plenty of twang, the Laura Love Band juiced things up with a little gospel, soul ("Stone Soul Picnic") and sounds that bordered on the Celtic. Coming off equally soulful, Stephen Bruton sounded a little like John Hiatt's blues-ey side with slow-burners like "Teach Me How To Stay."

The John Cowan Band represented the bluegrass realm well with its afternoon performance. Its set included one song featuring a tuba, another with a reggae beat, as well as a haunting version of Merle Travis' "Dark As A Dungeon." Who says bluegrass musicians can't also be eclectic? If they did, Cowan never received the memo. Also on the bill were Fred Eaglesmith, The Waifs and Santa Cruz All Stars.

This was one soiree that made up for whatever it may have lacked in star power, with the undeniable power of superb music played extremely well.